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Privacy Rights and Public Information

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By Benedict Rumbold and Dr James Wilson
Philosophy, University College London

In their newly published article, Privacy Rights and Public Information, which was published in The Journal of Political Philosophy, Benedict Rumbold and James Wilson seek to explore the right to privacy for an individual when they have made information public.

Although not discussed in detail in this piece, the article explores existing ideas of privacy and ethics, in particular the ideas of Judith Jarvis Thomson, and Helen Nissenbaum

They seek to explore these ideas further by applying them to different scenarios, including when information is make public both intentionally and unintentionally.  

Making information public unintentionally

Informational privacy is by its nature limited to private information, however the lines are not always simple. They explore the ethics behind potentially violating someone’s privacy by the appropriation and dissemination of information either that they themselves have made public or that has been inferred from information they have made public.

They give an example in the article of people having an argument that can be overheard by their neighbours. Although, in this scenario, this information is made public because the argument is loud, if you are to respect their privacy, you would be obligated not to attempt to appropriate the content of the discussion by what you overhear.

Similarly, in an online example, Samaritans Radar offered to monitor the public tweets of the people you were following, to understand whether someone ‘could be going through a tough time.’ As these tweets were publically available, it could be argued that users waived their right to privacy. However, it could also be argued that the information that was inferred from these tweets (that they were going through a tough time) is a violation of privacy.

The ethics of big data; analysis of private vs. public information

Perhaps a debate that is becoming more and more important is the ethics of big data. Much of the discussion currently available is focused around the analysis of large datasets of private, personal information, however they consider the ethics around the analysis of public information such as social media posts. They argue that individuals cannot be considered to have waived all their rights to privacy just by having posted bits of information online, particularly if they may be unaware of just how much information analysts are able to uncover by interrogating such information.

Relevant to i-sense is ongoing research that attempts to predict whether or not Twitter users are suffering from seasonal flu through their use of certain key words in their tweets. The thought behind this research is that such information will help public surveillance and health interventions.

In the case of Twitter analysis, the data-analyst has an obligation not to appropriate or disseminate any information that the right-holder would have wanted to keep private. In contrast to the example involving Samaritans Radar, there is no social stigma attached to flu, so it could be considered ethically permissible to analyse Twitter data in this way to establish whether users have the flu or flu-like-illness. It could also be said that by virtue of tweeting about having flu-like symptoms that they are relatively relaxed about making such information publically available.

Further discussions

Although this article does not discuss anonymising data, it does discuss the varying views around appropriation, dissemination, or analysis of publicly available information and suggests that this may violate one’s right to privacy. It heavily argues against the idea that once information is put into the public domain, one waives all right to privacy related to that information. Rather, they consider that privacy can only be waived by actually waiving it.

The article aims to raise new questions around the subject and suggests a powerful new rule: namely, do not appropriate or disclose any information that you have reason to think the right-holder wishes to keep private.

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